Network talk shows were very different in the late ‘60s. Hosts such as Dick Cavett, David Susskind and William F. Buckley would often host public intellectuals plugging their ideas, not their books or movies; they had conversations, not infomercials. Impeccably urbane and astonishingly witty, Cavett was by far the hippest of the bunch: he could roll with Ingmar Bergman, Germaine Greer and R.D. Laing as well as counterculture figures such as Richie Havens, Mort Sahl and Jane Fonda. So yeah, Dick Cavett was cool. Cool enough to rap with Jimi Hendrix.
By the summer of ‘69, Hendrix was one of the biggest concert draws in the rock world, but his network TV debut on “The Dick Cavett Show” on July 7 of that year signaled that he had become a bonafide Cultural Figure. Not many people had heard him speak, though, so his appearance held a surprise: While he was flamboyant and intense on stage, the moment Hendrix sat down with Cavett, he proved to be sweet, soft-spoken and modest. “And then the nice man walks on,” Cavett says in a present-day interview in this one-hour documentary. “He wasn’t a beast nor a freak nor schizoid.”
The first thing Cavett asks Hendrix is why he smashed and burned his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival two long years earlier: “It’s nothing but a release, I guess,” Hendrix says, before Cavett follows up with an incredibly thoughtful reply: “You almost have to apologize to ask someone who’s considered an artist, as you are, what they mean by something, because you’re asking them to reinterpret something they’ve already done.”
Not only was Hendrix shy, but TV was full of squares who didn’t vibe with his elliptical, impressionistic way of putting things.
Cavett clearly understood artists. Which turned out to be a very good thing since, as drummer Mitch Mitchell says here, “I don’t know how keen [Hendrix] was” about appearing on the show. “He didn’t mind doing his usual press things but television, I think that was something else.” And it’s easy to see why. Not only was Hendrix shy, but TV was full of squares who didn’t vibe with his elliptical, impressionistic way of putting things. Though someone like Johnny Carson would probably have poked fun at Hendrix, Cavett not only absorbs his guest’s cryptic discourse but enjoys it.
“It’s like drinking coffee,” Hendrix says, ruminating on fame, “well, you don’t drink it every day or if you go into another scene with it, you know. Like an escape, you know.”
“I don’t know,” Cavett replies, smiling beatifically, “but it sounds good.” It’s actually sweet to watch these two very different people hit it off. At one point, the suit-and-tied Cavett nods at Hendrix and quips in hippie lingo, “I turn him on, it’s really amazing.” Hendrix actually giggles; he’s thoroughly charmed and at ease.
In passing, Cavett calls Janis Joplin a “superstar” and Hendrix interjects, “I’m Super Chicken” and chuckles to himself. It goes right over Cavett’s all-too-cultured head, but “Super Chicken” was a really weird and wonderful Saturday-morning kids cartoon starring a swashbuckling rooster, made by the same people who did “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.” It’s endearing that Hendrix was a fan.
Despite their obvious rapport, at the end of the interview Cavett worries that they haven’t communicated very well. “I talk through the music anyway,” Hendrix replies, then walks over to his guitar and amp to close out the show with a song. He doesn’t play his latest single. Instead, he gives the audience a two-and-a-half minute microdose of “Hear My Train A Comin’,” a blues that Hendrix recorded so many times that it became a leitmotif of his career. It’s surely an autobiographical song — Hendrix seems to be saying that it will tell you more about himself than any interview.
“I gotta leave this town, gotta leave this town,” he sings, “Gotta make this voodoo chile be a magic boy.” A whole lot of rejection, pain and ambition are bound up in those lines, if you only listen. Only a week or so before, Hendrix had parted ways with original Experience bassist Noel Redding. That’s why he plays “Hear My Train” with the Cavett band and not the Jimi Hendrix Experience — because at the time there was no Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Cavett band, really just the rhythm section, acquits itself surprisingly well — the bass player is pretty hip! — as Hendrix uncorks a mind-roasting solo.
When Hendrix returned to the Cavett show that Sept. 9, he didn’t play a hit either: amid the raging Vietnam War and widespread unrest, the new Experience — bassist Billy Cox, percussionist Juma and drummer Mitch Mitchell — plays the pointedly anti-war medley of “Izabella” and “Machine Gun.”
“Maybe one day I’ll be holding you,” Hendrix sings, “instead of this machine gun.” When he sits down with Cavett, two things become apparent. One is that he’s wearing the same ornate Japanese hanten robe that he wore on the show in July. But it’s also obvious that he’s even more experienced, and not just because he’d played his epochal sunrise set at Woodstock. He’d done three years of constant touring and recording and, as Billy Cox explains, “His personal problems were getting the best of him, with the management and the booking agent and the law.”
Hendrix looks exhausted, with noticeable bags under his eyes. He barely looks up as he speaks. The host is off his game too — Cavett has announced that he’s still in the throes of food poisoning — but the two men still have their rapport. As they begin to talk, there’s an audible hum from the amps and Cavett asks, “What is that sound?” Hendrix has a great, typically cosmic reply: “Today the air is all static so the amplifiers are static. Music is loud, the air is loud.”
Later, Cavett asks Hendrix if he ever practices. “I can’t practice,” Hendrix says. “It’s hard for me to remember any notes because I’m constantly trying to create other things. That’s why I make a lot of mistakes.”
Hendrix took chances in his life as well as his music. A year after the second Cavett interview, he was gone, from pharmaceutical misadventure, having made one mistake too many.